A New Class Consciousness

A New Class Consciousness

For all the friendly feelings toward organized labor in the United States today, a new workers’ movement remains incipient.

A UPS worker at a teamsters rally on July 19, 2023, in Los Angeles (Frederic J. Brown/ AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden era has, in some respects, been a boon for unions. They have a friendly voice in the White House. A flurry of rulemaking at the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Environmental Protection Agency promises to raise prevailing-wage determinations for labor on public works, to restrict employer speech that threatens or intimidates workers, to seek court orders against employers for violating the law, and to impose employer neutrality on beneficiaries of certain federal grants and tax credits. Liberals preach the case for rebuilding the labor movement, which is the closest thing to a popular political machine they have ever enjoyed. Meanwhile, a new group of conservatives—led by politicians such as Marco Rubio and intellectuals such as Oren Cass—publicly argues, however improbably, for collective bargaining.

The economic conditions have been ripe as well. A business-cycle upswing in the late Obama years, delayed politically during the Great Recession, saw a decade of minimum-wage increases at the state and local levels. (Only five counties or cities had their own minimum-wage ordinances in 2012; fifty-five do today.) Employment in state and local governments—which is near its peak pre-pandemic levels—is strong. The construction boom, although slowing in the housing sector, has accelerated in manufacturing, driven by a reorganization of supply chains for producers of electric vehicles and renewable energy. Federal spending on infrastructure is scheduled to double in 2024 and again in 2026, while private investment to install energy generation and distribution systems is rising and expected to continue; expanded prevailing-wage and apprenticeship requirements on these projects will grow the construction trades. Product orders, capacity investment, construction, and government payrolls all sustain employment, a prerequisite to union organizing.

But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that did more than anything to denaturalize the regime of individual bargaining—competitive and private wage negotiations and company-sponsored career-path planning—with which employers and politicians have frozen the aspirations and energies of the nation’s workers. Eighteen months of enhanced unemployment benefits (beginning under the Trump-signed CARES Act) for more than 53 million workers provided temporary relief from the daily grind. And the customarily hidden powers over who organizes work were exposed, challenging our tolerance for managers’ unilateral control over the terms and conditions of employment. Wage earners discovered a disorganized power during the pandemic, and in April 2021 the White House responded by establishing the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, chaired by Labor Secretary Martin Walsh and Vice President Kamala Harris. In February 2022, the task force recommended a library...